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The British Conservative Party and the Fate of the Jews

Peter Egill Brownfeld
Fall 2002

Conservative Party Attitudes  
to Jews 1900-1950  
by Harry Defries  
Frank Cass,  
168 pp.  

The British Conservative Party dominated politics in the United Kingdom from 1900 to 1950 and thus had a dramatic impact on European Jews and the creation of Israel. Throughout this period, the party had elements of nativism and anti-Semitism. Politicians with these beliefs supported the creation of a Jewish state as a way to keep out and divert Jewish immigrants. Zionism and British insularity were natural partners in the issuance of the Balfour Declaration. With time, consideration for the Muslim elements of the British Empire led to less support for Zionism.  

There were many currents in the Conservative Party. Zionism, xenophobia, and anti-Semitism were among them. But so were anti-fascism and a sense of “fair play.” Harry Defries chronicles these changing currents and, with no uniform Conservative Party opinion of Jews, he aptly titled his book: Conservative Party Attitudes to Jews, 1900-1950. This volume is an adaptation of his Ph.D. dissertation completed at Royal Holloway College, University of London. When studying party politics in a vibrant democracy, perhaps it is impossible to find unanimity on any subject. Defries has instead uncovered many streams of thought that flowed in different directions as Britain’s economy and geopolitical position shifted.  

Immigration and a Jewish State  

The two issues that Defries spends the most time on are immigration and the creation of a Jewish state, and these topics are necessarily intertwined. He also uncovers anti-Semitism, which primarily remained on the outskirts of respectable politics. Defries has done an excellent job of revealing the Conservative Party debates over the Balfour Declaration, Jewish refugees - first from Eastern Europe and then from the holocaust, and the development of Palestine as a Jewish state. With the Conservative Party ruling during most of the period under examination, Defries’ study of one party actually reveals how the British government made its decisions on many issues that were of vital importance to Jews from Britain and around the world.  

Britain has historically had an insular world outlook contributing to nativism. In the two decades before 1900, Jews were the largest number of immigrants to England. Defries writes: “Whilst a large number of Jews who landed at British ports subsequently sailed to the United States, there remained a large and growing immigrant community which was considered generally by Unionists1 as an undesirable alien element that would not integrate, would put unreasonable strain on public finance, and cause social and political unrest.”  

Such attitudes took a practical effect in legislation restricting immigration. Overt anti-Semitism was unacceptable in British public life. As a result, in the debate over immigration, there were few references to Jews by name. Defries explains that limiting immigration, even without mentioning Jews, can still be seen as taking a position on Jews. Even though the terminology used generally described them as “aliens,” Defries writes that “restriction was aimed primarily at Jewish immigration to Britain.”  

Anti-Alien Attitudes  

Arthur James Balfour, who becomes more prominent later in the discussion, was one leading Conservative with anti-alien attitudes. Defries quotes Balfour at length and clearly shows anti-alienism with no mention of Jews, though Defries rightly surmises that this is the group he is discussing. Balfour spoke about the danger of immigration in the House of Commons in July 1905: “It would not be to the advantage of the civilization of the country that there should be an immense body of persons who, however patriotic, able, and industrious, however much they threw themselves into the national life, still by their own action, remained a people apart and not merely held a religion differing from the vast majority of their fellow country-men, but only inter-married among themselves.”  

The Morning Post, regarded as an organ of the Conservative Party, editorialized in March 1919 that Jews were exaggerating the pogroms in Poland. It stated that there was a “plot against Poland” so that the “warm-hearted democracies” would turn against her while the “great power of Jews the world over would certainly be mobilized against Poland.”  

Such attitudes were widespread in the Conservative Party and resulted in the party successfully restricting immigration. Defries writes of the Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Act, which came into force on December 23, 1919: “The passing of this Act was, no less than the Aliens Act 1905, a seminal event which illustrated the attitudes of the Unionist Party towards the Jewish community.”  

Not Welcoming to Foreigners  

Before concluding that such actions were simply based on a dislike for Jews, it is important to keep in mind that the British, and particularly the Conservatives, were not welcoming to foreigners in general. Part of their antipathy to Jews can be explained by this larger xenophobia. Defries writes: many “Conservatives simply did not really like ‘foreigners.’ Whilst this attitude led to a natural inclination towards anti-Semitism, it also blunted its vehemence.”  

This xenophobia/anti-Semitism naturally fit with the growing Zionist movement. Nativism grew in Britain during World War I, and many British politicians wanted an alternative destination for the central and eastern European Jewish immigrants. The Conservative press depicted Jews as unpatriotic, cowardly, and even pro-German. The Zionist desire for a Jewish homeland seemed like a solution to the problem of Jewish immigration.  

Conservative politicians did not hesitate to express this attitude. The Unionist candidate in Whitechapel, David Hope Kyd, stated at his adoption meeting that he wanted to see the Aliens Act strengthened while at the same time supporting a ‘territorial’ solution for the Jews by diverting Jewish immigrants to Africa. William Evans Gordon, a Unionist Member of Parliament for the East End said that the Jews were a nation without a territory. He concluded that the creation of a Jewish state could deal with the “parasitical and the predatory” type of Jews who became prominent “where-so-ever Jews are congregated in numbers.”  

Defries summarizes these attitudes, writing: “Support for a territorial solution for the Jews, be it in Palestine or elsewhere, was to find favour with many Unionists who opposed Jewish immigration into Britain.” And he goes on to point out that the Zionists found common cause with the holders of such beliefs: “Zionists would exploit this view, particularly during the First World War in their campaign for the Jewish national home.”  

Chamberlain and Herzl  

One of the most powerful quotes Defries cites is from Joseph Chamberlain, the former colonial secretary, and father of future prime minister Neville Chamberlain. In 1904 Chamberlain, speaking of the Jews, asked: “how is their salvation to be accomplished without the ruin of our own people at home?” He stated that he and Theodore Herzl agreed that the best solution to the problem of Jewish aliens was “to find some country in this vast world of ours where these poor exiles can dwell in safety without interfering with the subsistence of others.”  

Defries argues that the Zionists agreed with the Conservative Party in regarding the Jews as a people apart. “The Zionists advocated the thesis that the Jews could not easily assimilate into the Gentile world and indeed their increased presence was itself a cause of anti-Semitism. The removal of Jews to some self-administered territory could be advocated by restrictionists as a legitimate solution which was advocated by Jews themselves (or at least a section of them).”  

The decision to issue a statement supporting the creation of a Jewish state was made primarily by the Conservative Party. On November 2, 1917, the Foreign Office issued the following statement known as the Balfour Declaration: “His Majesty’s Government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavours to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”  

Exodus of Jews  

One of Balfour’s primary motivations was to improve the countries the Jews would be leaving by providing for their exodus. In September 1918 he wrote: if Zionism succeeded it would do “a great spiritual and material work for the Jews, but not for them alone. For as I read its meaning, it is, among other things, a serious endeavor to mitigate the age-long miseries created for Western civilization by the presence within its midst of a Body which is too long regarded as alien and even hostile, but which it was equally unable to expel or to absorb. Surely, for this if for no other reason, it should receive our support.” According to Defries, Balfour believed “that Zionism could alleviate the continued presence in gentile society of an alien entity that posed a continuing danger to the stability of that society, and it had been Balfour’ s administration that had enacted the Aliens Act 1906, which restricted Jewish immigrants to Britain.”  

Defries concludes that overall a reasonably large proportion of the party supported Zionism and many of these Conservatives were, or would become, major opponents to immigration. Defries directly cites British nativism and anti-Semitism as a root of the Balfour Declaration: “It was the perception of Jewish power and the wish not to see further numbers of an unassimilable ‘international’ race in Britain which, in the critical wartime atmosphere that existed in 1917, resulted in the issuing of the Balfour Declaration.”  

Events in England with regard to support for a Jewish state on the part of anti-Semites was not unusual. When Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern political Zionism, served in Paris as a correspondent for a Vienna newspaper, he was in close contact with the leading anti-Semites of the day. In his biography of Herzl, The Labyrinth of Exile, Ernst Pawel reports that those who financed and edited La Libre Parole, a weekly dedicated “to the defense of Catholic France against atheists, republicans, Free Masons and Jews,” invited Herzl to their homes on a regular basis.  

Herzl and Anti-Semitism  

Herzl was not entirely displeased with anti-Semitism. In a private letter to Moritz Benedikt, written in the final days of 1892, he writes, “I do not consider the anti-Semitic movement altogether harmful. It will inhibit the ostentatious flaunting of conspicuous wealth, curb the unscrupulous behavior of Jewish finances, and contribute in many ways to the education of the Jews ... In that respect we seem to be in agreement.”  

Herzl’s book, Der Judenstaat, was widely disparaged by the leading Jews of the day, who viewed themselves as French, German, English or Austrian citizens and Jews by religion - with no interest in a separate Jewish state. Anti-Semites, on the other hand, eagerly greeted Herzl’s work. Herzl’s arguments, Pawel points out, were “all but indistinguishable from those used by the anti-Semites.” One of the first reviews appeared in the Westungarischer Grenzbote, an anti-Semitic journal published in Bratislava by Ovan von Simonyi, a member of the Hungarian Diet. He praised both the book and Herzl and was so carried away with his enthusiasm that he paid Herzl a personal visit. Herzl wrote in his diary: “My weird follower, the Bratislava anti-Semite Ivan von Simonyi came to see me. A hypermercurual, hyperloquacious sexagenarian with an uncanny sympathy for the Jews. Swings back a nd forth between perfectly rational talk and utter nonsense, believes in the blood libel and at the same time comes up with the most sensible modern ideas. Loves me.”  

After the barbaric Kishinev pogrom of April, 1903, when hundreds of Jews were killed and wounded, Herzl came to Russia to barter with V.K. Plehve, the Russian Interior Minister who had incited the pogrom. Herzl told Jewish cultural leader Chris Zhitlovsky: “I have an absolutely binding promise from Plehve that he will procure a charter for Palestine for us in fifteen years at the outside. There is one condition, however, the revolutionaries must stop their struggle against the Russian government.”  

Zionists wanted Jews Separate  

Zhitlovsky, incensed at Herzl for dealing with a killer of Jews, and aware that Herzl had been outsmarted, persuaded him to abandon the idea. Still, the Zionist leaders in Russia agreed with the government that the real responsibility for the pogroms rested with the Jewish Bund, a socialist group urging democratic reforms in the Czarist regime. Zionists wanted Jews to remain aloof from Russian politics until it was time to leave for Palestine.”  

The head of the secret police in Moscow, S. V. Zubatov, was sympathetic to Zionism as a way to silence Jewish opponents of the repressive Czarist regime. In her book The Fate of the Jews, Roberta Strauss Feuerlicht reports that, “Zionism appealed greatly to police chief Zubatov, as it does to all anti-Semites, because it takes the Jewish problem elsewhere. Both Zubatov and the Zionists wanted to destroy the Bund, Zubatov to protect his country, and the Zionists to protect theirs. Zionism’s success is based on a Jewish misery index: the greater the misery, the greater the wish to emigrate. The last thing the Zionists wanted was to improve conditions in Russia. Zionists served Zubatov as police spies and subverters of the Bund ...”  

In his study, The Meaning of Jewish History, Rabbi Jacob Agus provides this assessment: “In its extremist formulation, political Zionists agreed with resurgent anti-Semitism in the following propositions: 1. That the emancipation of the Jews in Europe was a mistake. 2. That the Jews can function in the lands of Europe only as a disruptive influence. 3. That all Jews of the world were one ‘folk’ in spite of their diverse political allegiances. 4. That all Jews, unlike other peoples of Europe, were unique and unintegratable. 5. That anti-Semitism was the natural expression of the folk-feeling of European nations, hence ineradicable.”  

Jewish Opposition to Zionism  

In the case of England, while anti-Semites embraced the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine, some of the strongest opposition to Zionism came from the Anglo-Jewish community, The elites of this community opposed the creation of a Jewish state, believing that it imperiled their status as Englishmen and was a betrayal of Anglo-Jewry.  

Defries cites the action of a leading British Jew, Edwin S. Montagu, Secretary of State for India in Lloyd George’s World War I cabinet. “The only opposition to policy came from Montagu,” Defries writes, “who asserted that by supporting and promoting Zionism the British government was betraying Anglo-Jewry. Montagu wrote a paper titled ‘The Anti-Semitism of the Present Government,’ in which he maintained that there was no such thing as a ‘Jewish nation.’ He declared that every country would desire to get rid of their Jewish citizens ‘if the Jews were told that Palestine was their home.’”  

Defries writes that Montagu lobbied cabinet ministers and the prime minister. He circulated another memorandum to the cabinet titled “Zionism,” in which he recorded his views of the Jewish people, their history, character, and aspirations. The Foreign Office responded to this paper with its own, titled “Note on the Secretary of State for India’s Paper on the Anti-Semitism of the Government.”  

Zionism a “Mischievous Creed”  

Defries accurately cites Montagu as one of the leading opponents of a Jewish state. “Zionism,” Montagu declared, “has always seemed to me to be a mischievous political creed, untenable by any patriotic citizen of the United Kingdom. If a Jewish Englishman sets his eyes on the Mount of Olives and longs for the day when he will shake British soil from his shoes and go back to agricultural pursuits in Palestine, he has always seemed to me to have acknowledged aims inconsistent with British citizenship and to have admitted that he is unfit for a share in public life in Great Britain or to be treated as an Englishman.”  

Unfortunately Defries fails to closely examine the whole story of the attitudes of the Anglo-Jewish community to Zionism. Montagu was not alone. Many leading members of the Anglo-Jewish community opposed the creation of a Jewish state. On November 12, 1917, Lucien Wolf, the secretary of the wartime Paper Commission and later active in non-Zionist Jewish organizations, wrote of the Balfour Declaration: “It is worse than ‘nasty.’ The more I study it, the more disastrous it seems to me. Henceforth, we are only temporary sojourners here, enjoying a political status which we obtained by some oversight and which will not be disturbed but which is nonetheless artificial. What a triumph for the anti-Semites.” Claude Montefiore, then president of the Anglo-Jewish Association, in November 1916 asked: “How can a man belong to two nations at once? No wonder that all anti-Semites are enthusiastic Zionists.”  

Less than a week after the Balfour Declaration was issued, Montefiore, Wolf, and others established a “League of British Jews.” In its announcement to the press, the League proclaimed its determination to combat the Zionist caveat that “the Jew is an alien in the land of his birth.” It called upon all Jewish Britons, regardless of their place of birth, to support its platform: “To uphold the status of British subjects professing the Jewish religion.” But the League still offered support for “such Jews as may desire to make Palestine their home.”  

Doubt on Nationality  

Many of the leaders of Anglo-Jewry, content and patriotic Englishmen, balked at the creation of a Jewish state that might cast doubt on their nationality. They desired nothing more than to be considered British citizens who practiced the religion of Judaism. Despite their earnest efforts against first the issuance of the Balfour Declaration, and then British support for the establishment of a Jewish state, they were, of course, unsuccessful. (For a fuller treatment of this subject, see “England’s Clash of Values: Jewish Universalism Confronts Jewish Nationalism,” by Peter Egill Brownfeld, Issues, Summer 2001 and “The League of British Jews: Challenging Nationalism on Behalf of Jewish Universalism,” by Peter Egill Brownfeld, Issues, Fall 2001.)  

Despite initial enthusiasm, the Conservative Party’s support for a Jewish state in Palestine would wane as its potential to damage Britain’s other relationships in the region became clear. With hundreds of millions of Muslims in her empire, at the time Britain was the largest Muslim nation in the world. At a meeting of the cabinet in 1939 the secretary of state for India Lord Zetland said that unless the government could substantially meet the Arab claims in Palestine, “we should have serious trouble with Indian Moslems.” Zetland advised the cabinet that the president of the All-India League had made a statement that “unless the difficulties in Palestine were fairly and squarely met it would be the turning point in the future of the British Empire.” The loyalty of the Muslims became an ever-larger consideration, and as extremism grew in Europe, Britain was not willing to allow the Jews to escape to Palestine. As time went by, these attitudes would gain more weight. According to Defries, Oliver Stanley, who in the post- World War II years was the principal Conservative spokesman dealing with Palestine, “considered that Palestine was a running sore which had caused the death of thousands, the unhappiness of millions and a perpetual poisoning of international relationships.”  

Britain, like America, and much of the rest of the world had little sympathy and even less room for Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. Even as the terrible reality of the holocaust emerged, Britain was not prepared to accept a significant number of Jewish refugees at home or in the empire. At this time, Britain was led by a coalition government, which was dominated by the Conservative Party. Defries writes: “Whilst it is obvious that the British government had no control over the policy of the Axis powers, it was not prepared itself to make any substantial gesture which could have resulted in resources being diverted towards assisting Jewish escape from occupied Europe.”  

Churchill and Eden  

Churchill wrote to Anthony Eden, his foreign secretary, that the holocaust was “probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world ... It is quite clear that all concerned with this crime who may fall into our hands, including people who only obeyed orders by carrying out the butcheries, should be put to death after their associations with the murder has been proved.”  

Despite such disgust, little practical aid was offered to the downtrodden Jews. In response to a question from the House of Commons, in which it was presumed that Jewish refugees would be offered safe haven, Eden gave a measured reply: “[t]here are obviously certain security formalities which have to be considered.” Defries offers another case: “When pressed, for example, by the Americans to assist Jews threatened with extermination in south-eastern Europe in March 1943, Eden pointed out that ‘if we do that, then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on any such offer, and there simply are not enough ships and means of transportation in the world to handle them.”  

A theme clear throughout Defries’ book is that Britain was a vibrant democracy with much difference of opinion both within the party and in politics in general. While the Conservative Party did little for the Jews suffering from persecution in Europe, individual Conservatives went to great lengths to help them. The future Conservative prime minister Harold Macmillan gave refuge to about forty, mainly Jewish, refugees in his Sussex home. On December 8, 1938, former Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin addressed the public on BBC radio as “an ordinary Englishman who is shocked and distressed by the plight of those despised and rejected people and their innocent children.” He appealed to his listeners to “come to the aid of the victims ... of an explosion of man’s inhumanity to man.” He established the Baldwin Fund, which in one year raised 522,651 for Jewish refugees.  

Jews in British Politics  

The Conservative Party and British politics were by no means bereft of Jews. During the period he studied (1900-1950), Defries notes that there were twenty-eight Jewish members of parliament from the Conservative Party, and many Jewish office­holders in the other parties. Many Jews served in high political positions in the cabinet and the judiciary.  

It is also important to distinguish the type of anti-Semitism that existed in Britain from that in other parts of Europe. Defries writes: “As this study has shown, notwithstanding the inherent anti-Semitism in, at least, an element of the Conservative Party, which included members of its leadership, the extreme fascist form of anti-Semitism was rejected by all but a few Conservatives.”  

British fascism was restricted to fringe groups, such as Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. There was little other support for Hitler’s Germany. Even the journal Truth, described by Defries as “virulently anti-Semitic,” disapproved of the attacks by Mosley’s “gangsters” on “poor little Jewish shopkeepers.” Truth argued that “the average Englishman” felt that persecution and violent attacks were disgusting things “even if the victims were only Jews.”  

God’s Interest in the Jews  

One member of parliament did not express support for the Jews, but showed a disdain for their persecution: “There is no country on the face of the earth that has dealt hardly with the Jews but has suffered for it ... Today Germany, by her treatment of the Jews, is laying up for herself wrath against the day of wrath.” He did not want Britain to treat the Jews badly because, “despite all their defects, God still has a deep interest in the Jews.”  

In addition to the impact of such religious beliefs, the Conservative Party, and the British people in general, traditionally rejected extremism. Defries writes: “Mainstream Conservative views of English ‘fair-play’ would lead to a rejection of extreme anti-­Semitism.”  

The attitudes towards Jews by the Conservative Party during this period have had a monumental effect on Jews and the world. Defries writes: “The consequences of those decisions made by Conservatives in the period under review have had dramatic consequences in the subsequent 50 years. The absence of peace in the Middle East and threats to the possible stability of the world can find their genesis in the consequences of the attitudes of the Conservative Party towards the Jews in the first half of the twentieth century.”  

Xenophobia and the Balfour Declaration  

The Conservative Party did not have one attitude toward Jews. The difference of opinion is what you might expect in one of the leading parties of a strong democracy. What Defries shows is that the Conservative Party generally opposed immigration and viewed the establishment of a Jewish state as an outlet for undesired immigrants. This xenophobic position on immigration led directly to the Balfour Declaration despite the protests of much of the Anglo-Jewish elite. The Conservative Party dominated British politics from 1900-1950 and had a dramatic effect on the life of British and European Jewry. The Conservative Party played the primary role in opposing Jewish immigration, creating Israel, and failing to act decisively to rescue Jews fleeing from the Nazis.  

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